Shop Minnesota museums for the most unique holiday gifts

If you crave gifts that are unexpected and go up a notch on the cool factor, skip the big retailers. Head to your local museums instead.

Museum gift shops celebrate regional artists, authors and local flavor in a ways you won’t get at most stores. By shopping at museums, you’re supporting Minnesota’s cultural scene as well as taking a breather if you’re able to enjoy the exhibits, too.

Mill City Museum, Minneapolis
The Mill City Museum (left) in particular melts into the holiday mood thanks to its focus on Minneapolis’ history as the flour capital of the world for half a century. General Mills with its Betty Crocker icon and Pillsbury with its Dough Boy continue the homey kitchen legacy. I always leave with an urge to go bake cookies.

What you can find here: Lip balm scented like Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, stuffed Dough Boys, hot dish cookbooks, Minnesota-invented Bundt cake pans, wonderful junior chef bakeware for kids, and aprons with attitude: “I’m not Betty Crocker. Deal with it!”

Minnesota History Center,  St. Paul
Visitors to the Minnesota History Center will find top-of-the-line local treats that tie into its new show, “Chocolate: The Exhibition.” On loan from the Field Museum in Chicago through Jan. 2, it follows the history of how a humble cocoa bean became one of the world’s most sought-after flavors.

It’s also an ideal place to pick up something for book-lovers such as Peg Meier’s “Wishing for a Snow Day: Growing Up in Minnesota,” beautifully photographed “Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico Wilderness” from Greg Breining and Layne Kennedy, and novels such as Dean Urdahl’s “Uprising,” the first in a trilogy about the U.S. Dakota War of 1862.

Need stocking stuffers? Look for light-hearted loon flutes, ladyslipper socks and Ole and Lena fortune cookies.

Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul
This is the greatest shop for nature and biology kits, guidebooks, rocks and minerals, dinosaur puzzles and other wonderful hands-on gifts for curious kids (or adults).

A sampling of goodies for under $20: hand-held, take-apart brain-teasers similar to Rubik’s Cube; origami kits for folding bunnies that hop and birds that can flap their wings; a build-your-own kaleidoscope kit; and DVDs of favorite IMAX movies.

To shake things up a little, you can pose with Anubis (left), a 26-foot-tall replica of the Egyptian god erected this week at Landmark Plaza. It makes for an enchanting Christmas outing with a stop at the free Wells Fargo ice rink. Anubis precedes the upcoming King Tut exhibit, “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs,” that opens Feb. 18. Tickets went on sale this week and can make great stocking stuffers, along with tickets to the general museum or Omnitheater.

Tip for parents: If you have kids ages 10 and under, stop by the Mississippi Visitor Center in the museum’s lobby. Like other national park sites, you can get a free workbook to learn about the river and earn a Junior Ranger badge.

Art museums
Art museum gift shops have always been spot on for unique jewelry, art cards, journals, whimsical umbrellas, puzzles, prints and posters, funky desk toys and, of course, art supplies. The Walker Art Center’s Totem building cards and crayon rocks for kids look especially intriguing. The
Minneapolis Institute of Arts also is worth a look. Plus admission is free with the exception of special exhibits. Check out its family center and look for monthly family days.

Regional museums
Don’t forget smaller regional museums either. They’re especially good for older relatives who enjoy memoirs, nostalgic gifts and the funny ones. Our favorite find one year was from St. Cloud’s Stearns History Museum: Nunzilla, a stern, wind-up nun who walked and shot sparks from her mouth. It was perfect for an aunt who attended a strict Catholic school and spent many Halloweens dressed in a habit.

For more information on museums statewide and art centers, go to Explore Minnesota.

For additional gift ideas, check out some of the best Minnesota-made apparel and accessories.